SPOKANE - The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the release of wheat loan rates by county Dec. 13, but the agency didn't actually reveal the numbers.

The posted county prices for various classes of wheat grown in the Northwest were scheduled to be posted online at the USDA website: www.fsa.usda.gov.

Ordinarily, loan rate determinations aren't available until April or May, after growers have planted their spring crops. Having the information earlier should help them make better-informed planting decisions.

According to the USDA press release, the loan rate structure will maintain the class differentiated approach put in place in 2002. Those loan prices were calculated under a complicated formula that left Northwest wheat industry officials fuming - first, because soft white wheat was low man on the loan price totem pole and, second, because hard red wheat was pegged at 30 cent plus premium despite its often inferior quality. The fact there was a soft red loan rate in seven counties that was higher than soft white was also a problem.

There's was also the matter of a durum loan rate of over $4 a bushel in nine counties despite the fact there is no delivery point for durum since Pendleton Flour Mills ceased to grind semolina. Whether any or all of these problems have been addressed will await the numbers.

Daren Coppock, chief executive officer of the National Association of Wheat Growers, suspects there won't be any wholesale adjustment. He said the signal he has gotten is they're using the same type of formula as last year.

Whether soft white wheat will retain its hold on the lowest loan rate depends on how it compared with other classes during the year. Certainly, it will be lower than hard red winter and hard red spring.

The USDA said an adjustment to the county loan rates in 2002 was overdue and reflected changing market conditions intended to fix numerous market disparities that affected producer benefits. The 2003 rates "will enhance the market orientation of the wheat loan and loan deficiency payment with special reference to durum wheat," the USDA release said.

Before 2002, county loan rates for wheat were all based off a national loan rate of $2.58.

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